Five Dynamic Phases of Energy (Wu Xing)

In Traditional Chinese Medicine an even more extensive chart is used to apply a very precise diagnosis and to determine the appropriate treatment tools or practices but when it comes to nutrition, the “tastes”, “seasons” and “environment” correlations, have the strongest relationship.

Before discussing how food fits into the theory, it is important to understand how the elements relate to one another through the Sheng cycle (nourishing), the Ke cycle (controlling), the Cheng cycle (overwhelming), and the Wu cycle (insulting).


Five Elements or the Five Dynamic Phases of Energy (Wu Xing)


Maybe the Daoist theory of the Five Elements can be seen as a further, more refined step to understand and categorize or analyze the Yin-Yang philosophy.

The Theory of the Five Elements describes the interaction and relation between Yin and Yang, between phenomena.

Daoism theories use symbols to describe phenomena of reality, hence each of the Five Elements represent an aspect of a dynamic process, processes phases of change. In this sense, Wood is not only the actual wood of a tree as defined by the substance, but describes the character, the dynamic state, the elemental force of the element.


Wood – rising, development (of an action), impulse, expansion, decampment

Fire – embodiment, definition, action, dynamic phase, design

Earth – alteration, transformation, transmutation, change, convert

Metal – sinking, contraction, declining

Water – contemplation, calmness, (re-) consideration, observation, reflection


The basic substances of the material world according to the ‘Theory of the Five Elements’ are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.

All material things are made of a single or a combination of the Five Elements, since these are the fundamental components.

All Five Elements are equally important and should form a balance, while being in constant move and cyclical change (phases).


Each phase’s peak already consists of its decline, and then forwarding the prior received / gathered (Qi) energy from one element to the following element.

The ‘generating’ or ‘controlling’ element is building up the energy to its own peak, before the decline starts again.

This interactive process is being constantly repeated, hence forming a never ending, though balanced circle.


Not only time changes things, but since everything changes within itself anyway, the ‘Theory of the Five Element’ is simply an observation of natural, creative changes; and it is the natural world confirming that all forces and energies in nature can be in constant smooth and harmonious transition from one phase to another – just as one season ‘becomes’ the next.


There are four main relationships, which you must be familiar with to understand the application of the five-element theory. First is the Mother-Son relationship, also known as the Sheng, nourishing, generative, productive or creative cycle, or when acting excessively called Cheng, Overacting (overwhelming) and the Grandparent-Grandchild relationship, also known as the Ke, controlling cycle or Wu or insulting when its action is reversed.

1- The Generating, Nourishing Cycle (生; shēng)

The Generating Cycle: one element (serving as parent) enriches, nourishes, strengthens, promotes growth and development of the following element (serving as child).

Generating: Wood feeds Fire – Fire creates Earth (ash) – Earth bears Metal – Metal (trace elements) collects, enrich Water – Water nourishes Wood


Interpretation: (supporting, helping)


– Wood is the supporting element of Fire. Fire can release the power of Wood.

– Fire is the supporting element of Earth. Earth can release the power of Fire.

– Earth is the supporting element of Metal. Metal can release the power of Earth.

– Metal is the supporting element of Water. Water can release the power of Metal.

– Water is the supporting element of Wood. Wood can release the power of Water.


3- The Overacting, Overwhelming Cycle (cheng)




The overacting (overwhelming) cycle (cheng) is an imbalance within the Ke cycle, while following the Ke cycle’s direction. The grandparent element provides too much control over the grandchild and weakens the element. Each element excessively restrains another beyond the normal extend. This usually occurs when an element is in excess:


– too much Wood overacts Fire

– too much Fire overacts Earth

– too much Earth overacts Metal

– too much Metal overacts Water

– too much Water overacts Wood


2- The Controlling, Destructing Cycle (剋,克; kè)

Grandparent – Grandchild relationship: the controlling cycle provides for a check and balance system among all of the elements.

The controlling or destructing cycle: one element suppresses, controls, dominates, overcomes, and weakens another element, preventing it from establishing its power.



Wood can cover the Earth. Earth can dry up Water, blocking its flooding.


Water can control Fire.

Fire can melt Metal.

Metal can chop Wood.


4- The Weakening (Insulting) Cycle (侮, wǔ)

The weakening (insulting) cycle (侮, wǔ): Grandchild insults or returns the controlling force generated by the Grandparent.

The weakening cycle is an imbalance within the controlling cycle, where, because of the weakness of the controller, the cycle is reversed and injures the normal controler. The imbalance follows along the opposite route of the Ke cycle; each element can insult the one that normally restrains it. This reversing of the Ke cycle normally occurs when one element is insufficient.


Interpretation: Weakening cycle: Earth can bury Wood. Water washes away Earth. Fire evaporates Water.


– too much Wood discourages Metal

– too much Metal cools down Fire

– too much Fire evaporates Water

– too much Water floods Earth

– too much Earth buries Wood


Interrelation of the cycles


Sheng and Ke cycle:

The Sheng and Ke cycle form a feedback system, which keeps the system/ body/ universe in balance. The Sheng and Ke cycle ensure that each element is connected with the other four elements.

Wood restrains Earth, but at the same time, the Earth promotes Metal, which than restrains the Wood. In this instance, Metal makes sure, that Wood does not restrain Earth too excessively.

Ke and Wu cycle:

The Controlling – Weakening cycle or Ke and Wu cycle represents a conflicting (fighting) aspect.

– Wood can break the ground (Earth), but Earth can bury Wood, too.

– Earth can absorb Water, but Water can cover the land (Earth).

– Water can extinguish Fire, but Fire might evaporate Water.

– Fire can melt Metal, but Metal might not melt before Fire is extinguished.

– Metal can cut Wood, but Metal might become dull before breaking Wood.


Wu and Cheng cycle:

If any of the elements are over abundant, they can disrupt the balance of the circle.


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